About My Pulmonary Embolism

Hey folks. You may have noticed that I haven’t posted to my blog much for the past week, and there’s a pretty compelling reason for that.

CW – ambulances, breathing issues, health issues, hospitals, and frank discussions of how fat people are treated by some healthcare professionals.

I was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. It wasn’t fun.

(This is me on Feb 16th…not having fun.)

For the tl;dr crowd: I was taken to the hospital last Tuesday (2/14/2023) with a blood clot in my lungs, kept there until Saturday, and am home now but still extremely week. I’ll need weeks, maybe months, to fully recover, and it could all happen again without warning.

Okay, that’s the extremely short version. Now, it’s storytime.

Storytime: My Pulmonary Embolism, Part One – You Should Go To The ER

I’ve been having health issues since 2014. In fact, I’ve gone to the ER once a year on average since December 2014, and have been suffering some infection or other literally 25% of my life for the past 8 years. A lot of that was colds, but I have also had pneumonia 4 times, bronchitis twice (once concurrently with the pneumonia), the flu 6 times (yes, despite getting a flu shot every year), the super-generic sounding “upper reparatory infection” five times, had long periods (weeks or months at a time) where I suffered apparently random sudden-onset fatigue that could shut me down as if someone had flipped a switch in my brain to make me unable to think to do anything except fall asleep… and had staph infections. A LOT of staph infections, involving more than half those ER trips I mentioned, and hospitalizing me once in 2019.

In short I have become, as a dear friend noted to me shortly before the pandemic, fragile.

The early days of the pandemic were actually a break of health for me, for about 4 months. I got more done, had more energy, and was never sick. But by the end of 2020, I was exhausted all the time, often with no explanation, back to getting pneumonia and staph infections, and often had trouble focusing on tasks.

So when I got a bad cold last December (having dared to go outside my social bubble to see tiny groups of people in well-ventilated areas, like my in-town family), and that turned into a bacterial lung infection, and that turned into pneumonia that took two courses of antibiotics and a course of steroids to get rid of the worst symptoms, I was not surprised. And when that left me with extremely low endurance, I chalked it up to being a morbidly obese man in my 50s who had been sick for six weeks. I mean, that pneumonia had been so bad my doctor had told me if I ended up having trouble breathing, “you should go to the ER.”

Sure, walking across a room left me slightly short of breath, but that was something I could fix (as I always had) over time. I wasn’t “having trouble breathing,” right? Just getting winded easily. I’d recover my endurance.

But oh, no. Not this time.

Unbeknownst to me, I have developed Deep Vein Thrombosis in my right thigh. This is a fancy way of saying I had a blood clot. And a bit of that blood clot had broken off from the mothership, moved to my lung, and begun reducing oxygen flow to my heart.

This is bad.

But I still had no idea what was going on. So I struggled along for another week and a half… and things got worse. I went from being slightly winded if I crossed a room to beginning to wheeze the moment I stood up. This freaked me out, and I made an appointment to see my doctor, and got some bloodwork done. I mean, I could breathe, so the ER wasn’t necessary. Maybe just one more round of antibiotics, and my doctor would need to see my lab results to know what to try this time.

I ran a game on Saturday the 11th, despite being unable to walk more than 5 feet at a time. I had to bow out of playing in a game on the 12th. I cried about how weak and tired I was on the 13th, and had to plan any moment requiring me to stand very, very carefully.

So, yes, something was obviously very, very wrong. And, equally obviously, I should have gone to the ER. And I didn’t. And there are multiple reasons for that, ranging from the expense (even with the insurance I scrimp and scrape t pay for, an ER trip is a bit hit to my budget) to my CPTSD (I can get panic attacks in any circumstance where I don’t understand what is going to happen). But a big one is… I’m fat.

Very, very fat.

Fat people have problems with healthcare professionals. A lot of that can be mitigated by finding one who actually treats you like a person, but at an ER you don’t get to pick your doctor. I have been told at ERs that my fever was “normal” for someone my size when I actually had pneumonia. I’ve been told a staph infection was weight-related acne, shortly before I began vomiting from it. My rheumatoid arthritis has been dismissed as weight-related osteoarthritis with a glance and exactly 0 testing. And, many, many times I have been told by a doctor, without talking to me or looking at my records, that a given problem is a side-effect of uncontrolled diabetes.

It’s worth noting, as part of that story, that I’m not diabetic. Never have been.

So, yes, I needed to go to the ER for days, and just muddled along in pain, short of breath, and constantly exhausted rather than face dismissal, insult, and misdiagnosis yet again.

And that brings us to February 14th. Valentines Day. And boy, did I have a heart-shaped surprise coming.

I had trouble sleeping (no shock, I’m an incurable insomniac, even with my sleep apnea well-treated and managed), so I got up late. My wife Lj was, as she often does, taking up the slack in what needed to get done and was herself exhausted. Since I was up to deal with things like expected deliveries, she lay down for a nap. And I decided to freshen up with a shower.

Showering had been a chore for days, but I was determined to push through it. My breath got short, and my legs got weak, but I’m already nearly a shut-in thanks to the pandemic. I was determined not to be an invalid. No matter how much I gasped for breath, no matter how much my heart began to hammer, I forced myself to push through it. And when it was done, I sat down to catch my breath.

Minutes passed. I was still wheezing and my heart was still pounding. My vision was filling with spots. I nearly passed out.

“So, Owen, you finally went to the ER, right?”

Oh, no friends. No such thing.

No, I went and woke my wife and told her I couldn’t be the one to stay up to deal with things. I had to lie down. And, to be frank, she was pretty ticked about it. But she saw I was panting, thought I’d just done something requiring exertion despite being chronically short of breath and seeing a doctor about it the following week, and let me lay down. I strapped on my CPAP… and kept gasping for air.

I’m not sure I can accurately describe the nightmare that followed. Not only was my heart not calming down or my breathing easing, it was getting worse. My vision blurred. I waited. And waited. For 30 minutes. And then when I decided to call for help… I couldn’t. I could barely choke out words one at a time. Thankfully, we have a smart speaker system, and I used it to cough out a housewide cry for aid.

My wife heard, came and saw me, and asked if I needed to go to the ER. I finally said yes. So she started to get ready, and we discovered I couldn’t stand.

THAT is when we both started to get really frightened. I am slow. I tire quickly. I’m fragile. But I have always, always been able to get up on my feet and do the crucial thing when it mattered.

But not that day. Happy Valentine’s Day, honey. Call an ambulance.

The 911 call went well. Upon discovering I had some bleeding issues (another thing I was to discuss with the doctor a week later), the emergency operator made sure they *didn’t* give me the aspirin otherwise called for in this case. Eight firemen showed up, took my vitals and, to their eternal credit, never assumed anything about why I was unable to breathe and my heart was beating hard, fast, and unevenly. Then the paramedics showed up, took my blood oxygen, strapped an oxygen mask to my face, and it was immediately time for me to go to the ER.

The firemen rolled me back and forth to get two traps under me… and carried me out of the bedroom, around an immediate 90-degree corner, and out the front door. Now, I am a BIG guy. When I walk through a doorway, there’s no spare space. But somehow these 8 calendar-worthy men surrounded me, 3 to each side, one at my head and one at my feet, and walked me through doors I barely fit through by myself.

Which is not to say it was easy for them. They were carrying me out head first, when one of them noticed the gurney outside was set to receive me feet-first.

One panting fireman; “Hey, we’re bringing him out head first. Turn the gurney.”

One calm paramedic: “No, we’re set up feet first. Turn the patient.”

Eight panting firemen: “TURN THE GURNEY!”

They turned the gurney, and the firemen got me into the ambulance. My wife Lj was right behind them, sitting in our car.

For minutes. It took them a long time to consider me stable. The paramedics were monitoring my blood 02, my heart, my mental state… and had to decide which of the two Emergency Rooms in range was better qualified to handle me. Lj has to sit for long minutes, knowing I was in the ambulance, and for some reason it wasn’t moving yet.

But eventually, they made a call (the right one, to their credit, we’d work out days later once my issue was actually diagnosed), and I got my first ambulance ride.


Residents of Norman, Oklahoma may recall there was a high wind advisory that day. As I rode in the ambulance to the hospital, I got to hear the dispatch report downed wires… then reports of smoke, then brush fires. Then MORE downed wires. And a flipped car. It sounded like a busy day.

It was.

When I got to the hospital, there were no slots open in the ER. So I was parked, along with the paramedics, still on the not-designed for-7XL-scale-humans gurney, in a hallway.

For an hour.

During which time my wife couldn’t come see me. But eventually they got me in, and she could sit with me… and worry. All we knew was that if they took the oxygen off my face, by 02 level dropped like a rock. From 97 to 70% in the seconds it took to switch me from the paramedic’s tank to the ER supply. And we did not know why.

Thankfully, our good friend Carl had, as soon as Lj had notified friends I was headed to the ER, told her he was on his way. They let him come into the ER bay I was in, and stay with her. And for a few hours, we all waited, while they took blood, strapped electrodes to me, ran machines in and out, slid x-ray plates under me, and said they’d try to figure out if it was an infection, covid, an as-yet unknown virus (yeah, they called that out as a specific possibility), sepsis, heart attack, or something else.

But at least I could breathe… shallowly, with the help of a machine.

We’ll get into the move to a hospital room, the diagnosis, and my eventually discharge in Part Two… which will be out when it’s out. [Edit: It’s out, find it here.] This post represents all I have been able to do over Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and I have no idea how long the next post will take. I’ll do my best to update y’all as soon as I can.

I DO want to say that from firemen to doctors to nurses to account reps and outpatient services, everyone I dealt with was professional, efficient, never dismissive and (with the exception of one grumpy nurse who was at the tail end of an 14-hour shift) polite and considerate.

Methods of Support
So, a lot of people have offered a lot of support, and I deeply, deeply appreciate it. There are plans moving forward to try to help cover medical bills and loss of income, and when they’re ready, I’ll announce them here. I may end up needing to turn to extraordinary measures, such as a GoFundMe, but I won’t be doing that until I know for certain I have to.

However, if you DO want to offer immediate support, I won’t refuse it. You can join or increase your membership tier at my Patreon, or if you prefer do one-time support through my Ko-Fi.

Thanks, folks.


About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at https://www.patreon.com/OwenKCStephens

Posted on February 20, 2023, in Health, Retrospective and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Owen, we’ve never met. But at some point on a St Patricks Day I had to call BECU for help as my card was rejected. Through the conversations about various bills and timing and such, the Customer Service person at BECU said “it’s really cool that you write about roleplaying games. You should meet my friend Owen.” He then told me stories about you, I sought you out on social media.

    I’ve followed you for a few years. The parasocial relationship is strong, because someone who used to play at your table told me that I should know you.

    But I don’t. Or I do.

    It’s a stronger connection than I have to other designers of this game, because the fact that you could make an impression on someone that they would know enough that helping talk me through a too tight bill for corned beef they could include your presence. That calmed me. It helped me.

    We had a smaller St Patty’s dinner than usual.

    I’ve learned a lot about games by following you since then. You’re a long ways from south King County now. That’s OK. Because I feel like you’re just down the way. If you were I’d bring y’all a casserole or coffee or something. I can’t.

    Maybe I can bring you some of my strength. So I offer that.

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